The Making of a Pirate

There's nothing especially swashbuckling about Monk. "I'm a normal guy, and I have a normal job," says the Boulder resident. "I'm in my mid-thirties, divorced, with a couple of kids. I don't have dreadlocks. I'm not a typical hippie radical."

He is, however, a wanted man -- by representatives of the Federal Communications Commission for owning and operating KBFR, a pirate, low-power FM (LPFM) radio station alternately known as "Boulder Free Radio" and "Bullshit Free Radio," for several months earlier this year. Adding to the FCC's wrath, Monk didn't mothball his equipment when he was shut down in July, but instead gave it to the Boulder Underground Radio Group (BURG), an unidentified cadre of what he calls "activist, anarchist musician types and some normal people" who've used it to broadcast from the back of a van in gleeful violation of the law.

"We do music shows. We do talk shows. The guests come up with us, and we talk about all kinds of things," a BURG spokesman says via e-mail. "We've even had a couple of live jams with a band that sounds damn good on guitars and bongos, all on the side of a mountain in front of a fire. It's so cool. Too bad it's fucking illegal."

This little drawback didn't bother Monk in the beginning, either, but it does now, which is why he has no involvement with BURG and refuses to speak about his experiences using his real name. But at the same time, he doesn't feel right remaining silent. When he first decided to give LPFM a try, he says, he planned to do everything by the book, only to find that the book had been rewritten in ways that strike him as unfair and unreasonable -- and he wants everyone to know it.

"All I tried to do is give people something worth listening to again," he says. "But I guess that's not allowed."

In Monk's view, the decline in radio's quality has everything to do with media consolidation -- and for those who haven't kept up with this trend, September 11 offered a primer. Thanks to shared ownership, Dan Rather was not only on CBS, as expected, but on UPN, MTV and VH1, too; Peter Jennings turned up in his usual ABC slot plus ones on ESPN and ESPN2; Brit Hume appeared on local Fox affiliates as well as Fox News, Fox Sports and FX; and Tom Brokaw helmed coverage on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC. Rather and Jennings, in particular, were also heard on untold hundreds of radio stations across the country, demonstrating by their presence there that the alleged variety on our nation's airwaves is largely illusory.

For better or worse (mostly worse), the legislation that made this situation possible -- the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- has had as great an impact on broadcasting in these United States as any legislation since the Communications Act of 1934, which established the FCC and laid the groundwork for all subsequent regulation of the industry. The telecom measure, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, gave companies permission to own as many as eight radio stations in a single market (Texas-based Clear Channel is at the cutoff point in Denver) and an unlimited number of outlets overall, thus spurring a buying frenzy that spelled doom for hundreds of so-called mom-and-pop signals. Independent radio voices began disappearing so rapidly that even the FCC became alarmed, and under the stewardship of former chairman William Kennard, the agency developed a plan made public in January 1999 that would have allowed individuals to operate low-power FMs (strength: 100 watts or less), thus providing local alternatives to homogenized corporate programming.

What happened next is extraordinarily complicated; the tale of LPFM told on the Web site by Wisconsin journalist John Anderson, widely regarded to be the movement's most knowledgeable historian, is broken into a whopping nineteen parts and clocks in at more than 8,000 words. But the key facts are as follows:

The FCC approved LPFM in early 2000, and set up an application process that drew hundreds of submissions. In the meantime, though, a number of broadcasting organizations, including the powerful National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Public Radio (NPR), were lobbying Congress, arguing that an LPFM outlet within three dial positions on either side of an existing station would cause tremendous interference problems. An LPFM at 92.1 FM, they claimed, might well disrupt broadcasts at 91.5 FM and 92.7 FM, each three dial clicks away.

The FCC rejected this argument, and pretty much the only experts who agreed with it were those on NAB and NPR payrolls; indeed, Pete Tridish of Prometheus Radio Project, a Pennsylvania association that supports the LPFM movement, says every study he's seen shows that low-power signals two dial positions away from other stations would be perfectly fine. But legislators, many of whom receive hefty campaign contributions from broadcasters, weren't convinced. And last December, a rider was attached to a budget bill that disallows all LPFMs three dial positions away from another station until the FCC conducts a series of tests proving the concept's technical viability -- and Congress passes a new bill taking these findings into account.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts